By Jade Helm
“I was once like the Indiana Jones of Himalayan geology,” said Kevin Pogue PhD. He explains the cultural, political and topographical setting of his research sites in northwestern Pakistan would have made the famous fictional explorer feel right at home. World changes caused this Washington based geologist to turn his attentions from ancient lands across the globe to those under the vines. The vineyards of the Pacific Northwest have never been the same.
Always the adventurer himself, research of the structural geology and tectonics of the Himalayan thrust belt began during his PhD study at Oregon State. He continued as an instructor and researcher at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. “It was a wild, crazy country and I’d still be exploring in Pakistan if it were not for 9/11.” Subsequent safety concerns “clipped his wings.” Luckily the grounded geologist is still in his element.
“I began dipping my toes into terroir waters,” explains Pogue. Terroir, the French originated concept of the influence of place on taste, in this case the taste of wine, was relatively new to Pogue in the early 2000s. He had co-written a guidebook to the geology of southeast Washington. Washington wine friends wishing to understand their sites better began inviting him to dig holes in their vineyards. “Opening a hole in the ground is like Christmas to a geologist. It is a new window, full of data,” Pogue relates with contagious excitement.
The deeper he dug into the concept of terroir the more he noticed an unmet need in Washington’s relatively young wine growing industry. A noted new route developer in the worlds of rock climbing and mountain biking, Pogue was also determined to blaze new trails in Pacific Northwest viticulture. “What if we matched site to grape? What if we planted at higher elevation to avoid freezing? What if we created natural stress for vines? What if we pushed the envelope? What if we made the wine better?” Pogue wondered at the possibilities.
Filled with the geeky thrill of sleuthing the terroir, soon Pogue was opening up windows in the ground and placing temperature monitoring devices throughout the Northwest. With the results of this new research he knew he could develop a database to inform vineyard planting decisions. Perhaps one of the greatest “proof in the glass” examples came from an unprecedented international award. 2011 L’Ecole N° 41 2011 Estate Ferguson brought world recognition to Washington with the International Trophy for Best Bordeaux Blend over £15 at the 2014 Decanter World Wine Awards. “Kevin helped me map soil depth at Ferguson [Vineyard] to better understand the interface between the windblown loess and fractured basalt. This led us to a better design in terms of vineyard layout and varietal location. He is also very knowledgeable on the mineral decomposition of the basalt, and what that means in terms of flavor impact on the wine.” explains Marty Clubb, L’Ecole N° 41.
The study of soil and climate are not necessarily new; however, Pogue’s focus on practical winegrowing applications has proven invaluable. Steve Robertson of Delmas and SJR Vineyard says, “Dr. Kevin Pogue’s research-based recommendations for variety/clonal selection have helped many independent wine-growers locate and develop vineyards that best express the terroir of their sites.”
Unlocking the geologic story can get vineyard sites “on the map.” Pogue’s penchant for tunneling into distinctive terroir within Washington and Oregon has aided in the recognition of AVAs (American Viticulture Areas), aligning the landscape of the Pacific Northwest wine conversation with the literal landscape. His geologic understanding and analysis of the deep gravels of what is now “The Rocks District of Milton-Freewater” made him uniquely qualified to write that AVA petition, which was approved in 2015.
There are several examples of Pogue’s research differentiating the special wine growing areas in Washington. Currently he has three AVA petitions in the perfected state (accepted by TTB and soon open for public comment): Candy Mountain, White Bluffs, and Rocky Reach.
Continuing to look to the future, Pogue is brimming with excitement about a “new” wine area under research. “You will soon be hearing a lot about the North Fork Walla Walla River Valley in the foothills of the Blue Mountains,” Pogue predicts. He is absolutely stoked about the 550 acres of south-facing slopes in this canyon, mostly at elevations of 1500-2000 ft. He describes the conditions there as freakishly ideal, creating extended growing seasons while muting the region’s sometimes harsh summer temperatures. Not even in AVA infancy, if it is on Pogue’s radar, it is safe to say people will pay attention.
As Washington draws more interest from outside investors, Pogue’s counsel is highly sought after and his influence has broadened. Still intricately involved with new vineyards in The Rocks District, Pogue is working with Valdemar Estates on establishing their vineyards in the AVA. Valdemar Estates is the new venture of Bodegas Valdemar, a fifth generation family winery based in Spain. The project will also include a winery in Walla Walla.
It is not just his research that has proven such an asset to understanding Washington’s unique terroir, but his unique style as an educator. David Flaherty, Washington Wine Commission Marketing Director says, “Kevin has an innate ability to take the hard scientific facts and bring them alive with the gusto of a skilled storyteller.” The Washington Wine Commission works with Pogue to lead seminars at some of their highest profile events, from New York to Seattle. Pogue is also tapped to speak with trade and media groups visiting Washington. Flaherty says, “Washington State has a geological history that is wholly unique to the wine world, and bringing that to life for our trade and media guests is an essential part to understanding our story.”
In less than twenty years since the closing of his “Indiana Jones of Himalayan Geology” chapter, through his adventures in terroir, Pogue’s contributions are noted across the Pacific Northwest wine industry. “He has become one of the top go-to scientists for aspiring wine students, ambitious entrepreneurs eager to break new vineyard ground, farmers looking to understand what lies under their plots of land, and those who are layering the foundations for our future,” says Flaherty.